The Bracket is the hub of an entire business ecosystem


There is a simple beauty to the March Madness bracket.

A tree chart that starts with 68 horizontal lines at its edges intersects down perpendicular vertical lines until only one horizontal line remains at its center.

This basic geometry has become the symbol of a cultural phenomenon that captivates the nation for a month each year, enticing millions of Americans to participate – and making the month of March big business for both men’s and women’s college basketball.

The biggest attraction? The storylines behind scrappy misfits: The unexpected appearance of a St. Peter’s, a George Mason or a Fairleigh Dickinson can only exist in format.

Casual and die-hard fans alike take part and wager their hard-earned cash on bracket games created by some of the titans of sports media. The legalized betting industry also claims a growing number of traditional bets.

The phenomenon has created an entire subsection of media devoted to the month, with “Bracketology” analysts tirelessly predicting which teams will make the bracket before debuting on widely watched pick shows.

It also represents another battleground for gender equality in sport: the men’s tournament still dominates the resources devoted to bracket games – despite a documented increase in interest in the women’s competition.

Natural selection

After the conference winners are crowned and the automatic bids are claimed, the process of selecting the free bids and seeding all teams begins with a NET – and not the kind being cut down.

After years of vague selection process based on the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), the NCAA grading tool for the 2019 and 2021 men’s and women’s tournaments was introduced.

NET initially based its rankings on five factors, which were later narrowed down to two.

Adjusted net efficiency (points per 100 possessions) takes into account the strength of the opponents played and the location of the games (home/away/neutral). The Team Value Index further weights wins against difficult teams, especially on the road.

The selection committee also uses the quadrant system, which ranks wins and losses based on location and team quality, to select and seed teams by NET.

The process ends when the selection committees submit their verdicts to CBS and ESPN — which they broadcast to dozens of teams and millions of fans anxiously waiting to find out who will play where.

the ecosystem

Illinois and Arkansas announce their play in the 2023 Men's March Madness Tournament.
Illinois and Arkansas were both at large for the 2023 men’s tournament. Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond a sports competition, March Madness represents an entire gaming company that generates specific ecosystems for some of the biggest players in sports media and sports betting.

ESPN, CBS, and even the NCAA itself are among the companies with challenges that allow fans to choose any game for a bracket out of 9.2 quintillion possibilities.

ESPN’s “Tournament Challenge” lures people to both its dedicated bracket challenge app and its general fantasy app – which encourages consumers to interact with the other content.

“On the technical side, we have a team supporting a very large digital sports ecosystem,” says Mike White, The Walt Disney Company’s EVP of Consumer Experiences and Platforms.

Bracket game apps become the most popular in the app stores every year in the days leading up to the tournament

ESPN’s Tournament Challenge currently ranks second among all free apps on Apple’s App Store. NCAA March Madness Live takes third place. The CBS Sports app is fourth.

Meanwhile, the 2023 tournament is expected to attract 68 million American adults with a combined stake of $15.5 billion, according to a survey by the American Gaming Association. Within that number, 56.3 million plan to enter a bracket competition with a buy-in.

And as legalized sports betting continues to grow, so too has March Madness betting volume.

Thirty-one million American adults plan to place a traditional bet online, with a sportsbook or with a bookie – and three-quarters of online bettors surveyed say this is their first time placing a bet online.

Science of Bracketology

A look inside an ESPN studio where the Bracketology show is filmed.
ESPN’s Bracketology Show. Photo credit: ESPN

The popularity of clip contests has created an entire sub-sector of media.

After an “indirect college basketball major” at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s “resident bracketologist,” eventually became the editor-in-chief and owner of the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook — a 400-page book published every year before the Men’s tournament is published the “Junkies” of the sport.

His invention of “Bracketology” came out of necessity: Covering 100+ teams for Blue Ribbon had become costly, so Lunardi devised a system for predicting which teams would be in the bracket, thus limiting the number of teams that could his employees had to deal with.

When ESPN needed to fill out ESPNews and its fledgling website around the turn of the millennium, it turned to Lunardi, whose analytical content was a perfect fit for the increasingly digital staple competitions.

“I don’t know if it would be what it would be without digital communications and social media,” Lunardi told Front Office Sports. “It made it a real-time company.”

The demand for college basketball analysis – before and during tournaments – is therefore of paramount importance across the industry.

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein designed a whole personality for March Madness, which will be on display throughout the year.

CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery’s joint rights to the tournament created an all-star team of basketball studio analysts including Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Candace Parker, Seth Davis and Jay Wright.

Blind spot

The South Carolina women's basketball team waves to the crowd at a game.
South Carolina is ranked No. 1 overall in the women’s basketball tournament. Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Bracket challenges, betting information and media coverage of the women’s tournament are still moving towards justice.

Up until this season, CBS didn’t even offer fans the opportunity to create anything Bracket pool challenges for the women’s tournament – a situation that was finally resolved this year (CBS declined FOS’s request for comment on this story).

Action Network, known for betting information and pick tracking, still doesn’t offer women’s college basketball as an option (Action Network has not responded to FOS’s request for comment).

This is despite a growing appetite for women’s soccer among college basketball fans.

NCAA women’s basketball games averaged nearly 200,000 viewers per game on ESPN networks, the most since 2014-15. The South Carolina-LSU matchup in February was the network’s most-watched regular-season game since 2010, averaging 1.5 million viewers since 2010. Big Ten Network reported single-game (Iowa vs. Maryland) viewing records that season, a conference tournament and the entire regular season.

After moving from Monday to Sunday in 2022, ESPN’s women’s selection show averaged 1.27 million viewers in 2023 — an 18% increase and the best since 2005. ESPN also completely sold out its ad inventory for the 2023 women’s tournament.

Outlets that have historically offered women’s bracket games are also seeing growth there: White says the Women’s Tournament Challenge saw a roughly 67% increase in users over the last season and a four-fold increase overall since the first launch of the tournament game recorded.

“We do this because our fans are there,” adds White. “Looking at the growth and the numbers, we’re seeing real success there. We have the [TV] Rights, as you know, but we would still invest in it.”

Beyond Business

The excitement of March Madness remains unsurpassed for one reason: the unpredictable drama of a single-elimination tournament where one match can mean the end of highest championship aspirations and the next step in a Cinderella run.

In 2018, Virginia entered the men’s tournament with the top total set. In the first round, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County defeated the Cavaliers — the first and only time a No. 16 team has upset a No. 1.

Does that mean UMBC had a better basketball team than Virginia? Probably not. Virginia will be played over a seven game streak and will likely beat UMBC in five games.

“[Upsets happen] At least often enough to keep us coming back because of the unique nature of the event,” says Lunardi.

Whether you love the unpredictability, the underdog spirit, or the betting results, anyone can be a fan for a month.

“It’s like a sports vacation, especially the first few games,” White says.

“Thinking of all our major sporting events in this country, this is probably one of the, if not the most inclusive,” says Lunardi, “because we all went to school somewhere or we all have our home state or home town, or home interests. Professional sport is usually a domain of big cities and large metropolitan areas. And here with the bracket, everyone can have a rooted interest.”

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